Wednesday, 29 December 2010

New take on twin cities

One of the books I've read while travelling over the past couple of months is The city and the city, by China Miéville. I hadn't read any of his books before, partly because I couldn't decide which one to start on and kept receiving different recommendations from my friends. So when this one was joint winner of the Hugo Award this year, I felt it was a sign.

It's a fascinating book, where the reader is thrust into a strange environment of superimposed cities (somewhere at the edge of Europe) with zero explanation. Gradually, through the careful placement of information tidbits and then more detailed exposition, you build up a picture of how the cities coexist, the differences in their cultures, and the various rules of the two societies. These then become fundamental to the main plot, which at heart is essentially a police procedural crime (murder) novel, albeit in a very different world from our own.

I have perhaps revealed too much here, for Miéville clearly wants readers to know nothing of the setup prior to reading, but I think you can get this much from various Amazon reviews... And, anyway, the premise is so original and intriguing that this in itself is the perfect hook.

It's not a fast-paced novel, with events instead playing out at a pace that reflects the strict bureaucracy of Miéville's world and the police-world in general. The main character is an experienced senior detective from one of the cities, and we follow his efforts to solve a murder tangled with international conspiracies, while having some of his core beliefs shaken. He's a likable, highly competant character, and forms interesting relationships with the various other colleagues, suspects and witnesses he deals with throughout the novel.

The writing is sparse, and the unique urban setting and the characters sketched with broad strokes, so that the novel almost feels allegorical in tone. I admit that I generally prefer novels with more flesh on the bones (and more attention paid to character), but I was nevertheless engrossed by this book and its ideas. I would recommend it to anyone who likes something a little weird and doesn't mind working a little harder than normal! I'm definitely up for another Miéville novel; just need to decide which one!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Fluffy White Christmas

Amid the great European freeze, we have had our White Christmas in Bonn, Germany. In accordance with German tradition we celebrated on Christmas Eve -- decorating the tree with all the family, attending a candle-lit carol service, building two impressive snowmen, eating and drinking and being generally merry.

Then we celebrated again on Christmas Day (today) with presents and our usual turkey roast dinner (more eating, drinking, being merry) -- and it felt entirely appropriate having a roast, since it was so chilly outside (circa -6 deg C). In fact, we found the back porch an entirely appropriate place to chill food that didn't fit into the fridge...

The snow today was beautiful, light and fluffy powder. Much of it fell yesterday and overnight, covering grass and other surfaces that had begun to show through as earlier snowfall started to thaw. But after a couple of milder days, yesterday was bitter and windy and it snowed for most of the day, and then today was fine and even sunny for a spell in the afternoon. We went down to the Rhine for a short walk and I was sorely tempted to throw myself into the pristine powder to make snow angels.

The massive house-party (across two houses) and two-day celebration has been fantastic. With all the snow-disruptions to trains and planes, we've been incredibly lucky that everyone made it to Bonn in time (from various parts of Germany and Europe), with only a couple of hairy moments. After over a year in the planning, it's all turned out brilliantly.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Christmas markets

Of all things at Christmas time, Germany is renowned for its Christmas markets. On our train journey from London, we met people travelling to the Cologne Christmas markets -- some of the most acclaimed in the country -- specifically to do their Christmas shopping. The markets can apparently be found in just about every town, and attract crowds (no matter how freezing the temperature) to sample the edible delicacies and handcrafts and, perhaps most importantly, Gluhwein (mulled wine).

The Bonn Christmas market, located mainly in the town square, is a lovely market with all the prerequisite foodstuffs and handcrafts like ornaments and Christmas decorations carved from timber, engraved glass objects, paper star lanterns (complete with light globes inside) for hanging in windows at Christmas, porcelain ornaments, candle holders etc. It flows into adjoining pedestrian walkways and neighbouring squares, luring the visitor onwards through the quaint city centre. It was in the Bonn market that we sampled the delicious dampfnudel, a traditional German steamed dumpling, smothered in vanilla custard sauce and stewed plums.

We visited two of the Cologne markets today. The first nestles in the shadow of the Dom, Cologne's massive and impressive cathedral (see picture - not mine), and is perhaps slightly more diverse and higher quality than the Bonn market. Here, the kids rode the merry-go-round and the adults sampled gluhwein in ceramic mugs that we could keep. The weather was milder today at 1 degree C, and we all enjoyed perusing the many excellent stalls. (Alas, no dampfnudel to be found!)

We stumbled upon the second Cologne Christmas market, down a bit and around the corner, as we headed back to the station, the light fading and the lights twinkling in the dusk. We didn't have nearly enough time at this market, which looked at a glance to be the best of all of them! It seemed to have a multitude of stalls with interesting wares and different foods, and the night atmosphere with all the lights (including hundreds of lit Christmas trees) was truly spectacular.

So the German Christmas markets have lived up to expectation (unlike the Bruges effort, which was poor by comparison). The lights and snow and gluhwein and market stalls all combine to create a wonderful Christmas atmosphere that is unlike anything we have in Australia.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

der Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree)

It is exactly one week until Christmas, which this year will be spent with my entire family in Bonn, Germany. The plan is to embrace some of the German traditions while we're here. We are of course hoping for a 'white Christmas', which is not unthinkable -- there is still much snow on the ground, and it snowed quite heavily for a while yesterday. Fingers crossed the world is still white in a week!

In true German fashion we set off today to choose our Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum). The plantation we visited was filled with snow-laden Christmas trees of all shapes and sizes -- from massive 4-5m monsters, down to tiny baby trees about 10cm high. The idea is to trek through the snow to find the exact tree that meets height, breadth, symmetry and aesthetic requirements, then have it cut down, netted and slung over the car. It then hangs around outside until next Friday, Christmas Eve, when it is brought inside and decorated.

It took us about 20 mins to investigate the various tree-options and make our selection, all the while our toes and fingers becoming numb. A snowball fight ensued once the choice was made and we awaited the man with the saw. By the time the tree was felled and roped onto the roof of the car, an hour had passed and we were all freezing and ready for a hot drink and lunch. O Tannenbaum, the pains to we which we go to choose thee!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bitterly cold in Brugge

En route between London and Bonn, we have stopped in Brussels for a couple of nights, mainly to facilitate a day-visit to the quaint and highly acclaimed town of Bruges/Brugge. We caught a fast train there this morning, once again bitterly cold with sunny patches, and were delighted by this medieval town threaded by partially iced-over canals (see picture above!), home to glorious white swans, multiple chocolatiers and lace shops, and reportedly the host of a Christmas market worth travelling to from London for a long weekend.

Brugge is a town to explore on foot, and many have asserted that a day rambling the gorgeous cobbled streets is all that is needed to have 'done Brugge'. This I can well imagine, for every little street is a temptation . . . and even as the temperature hovered at around zero degrees, I felt the lure of this town.

However, I have to admit I'm a little over the freezing temperatures we've been experiencing for the past three weeks. No matter how many layers I pile on, I can't seem to shake the bitter slash of cold on cheeks, the icy penetration of cold into fingers and toes, the shudder of frost through my jeans. This sadly hampers the best-laid plans of the intrepid traveller. For when it's literally FREEZING, the lure of cafes and museums starts to put gorgeous cobbled lanes, canals and Christmas markets into the shade.

The highlight of our visit today, therefore, was an authentic Belgian hot chocolate accompanied by home-made Belgian waffle with hot chocolate sauce at The Old Chocolate House. This is a cosy first floor tea room above a chocolate shop, where the hot chocolate comes as solid choc buttons in a chocolate cup with a bowl of hot milk (into which you stir the buttons). Gorgeous.

Friday, 10 December 2010

A taste of London

After more than five weeks of gadding about at a furious rate, it has been nice to slow down for a couple of weeks while staying with friends in London. What with Sunday roast lunches, afternoon teas in the country and (for the first few days at least) snow-mayhem that brought the country to a standstill, I've grown positively lethargic!

Nevertheless, I have managed to get into London a few times (we are staying in the outskirts) to do some museums (snow = freezing = indoors desirable). My first expedition was to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a museum dedicated to the decorative arts, and covers a vast and diverse array of trades and crafts and art. There was no possible way to see all of it in a single afternoon, but I gave the 3rd floor a pretty good stab. I found myself lingering over an eclectic mix of displays:
Ironwork - Of particular interest for me, as a former metallurgist, was the decorative ironwork display, which encompassed intricate wrought iron artifacts, cast iron objects, engraved pieces, and locks/padlocks with keys (and more).
Beatrix Potter - I was fascinated by the original illustrated letter containing the original story of Peter Rabbit.
Micro-mosaics - Tiny tiny pieces of glass used to decorate furniture, snuff boxes, etc in beautiful designs. Accompanied by an impressive snuff box collection (all from the amazing Gilbert Collection).
Tapestries - Only one gallery, alas. Three massive medieval tapestries showed various hunting scenes.
Portrait miniatures - Originally painted on vellum, later ivory, these exquisite portraits were beautiful (despite involving inhumane treatment of animals...).

On another day, we visited the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum -- an underground maze of bunkers that were used during WW2 by Churchill and his ministers (and multitudes of other men and women, both civilian and otherwise) as a subterranean HQ. The rooms show how the living and working quarters were furnished and the types of equipment they used, while an audio guide explains how it all went down on a daily basis. A highly technological museum devoted to Churchill's life is also to be found down there, complete with interactive light displays, plus all sorts of other memorabilia. I came out knowing a whole lot more about this remarkable man, who lived enough for ten men!

London has so many museums that it's difficult to choose which ones to visit. We ultimately decided to go to the relatively new Museum of London, which focuses on London as a city from the dawn of civilisation (hunter gathers in the Thames valley), the Roman founding of Londinium and its subsequent abandonment, the arrival of the Saxons . . . Normans . . . Black Death . . . the Fire of London . . . all the way to the current day. In fact, it even peeked into the future, with a remarkable exhibition of digitally-constructed images showing what London could become as the result of environmental pressures (St Paul's with rice paddies . . . Buckingham Palace surrounded by immigrant shanty town . . . Piccadilly Circus underwater . . . etc). It is a fabulous museum, with all sorts of fun interactive displays, lots of diversity -- once again far too much to take in all at once. I would have liked, however, a bit more cross-referencing with politics/government/monarchs etc (which weren't covered to large extent, except for Oliver Cromwell). Nevertheless, it was great to have it all laid out from woe to go; it really helps with perspective.

The rest of my time in the London CBD (when not lounging around sloth-like) has been spent shopping! I spent yesterday in Regent and Oxford Streets, and today at the new Westfield London shopping centre. I was definitely ready for some retail therapy!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (movie - part 1)

I was finally able to see the new Harry Potter movie last night, despite having been in the UK for 2 weeks already. As with all the movies, I think I probably need to see it again in order to really know what I think of it. As far as I can recall from the book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), part 1 of the movie stays remarkably close . . . and I certainly enjoyed the movie; however, my initial impressions are that it moved a little too slowly in parts, sketched over characters I felt deserved more weight (a recurring complaint from me with the HP movies, but they had more scope with this one, being a two-parter, so no excuses), and the dramatic scenes all felt a little under-done, under-whelming, somehow. I can't help but feel that only those who have read the book will be able to follow the movie, and with all the extra time available this should not have happened.

On the upside, though, the film depicted events pretty much exactly as I imagined them for the most part, and I definitely want to see it again, particularly when part 2 of the movie comes out. I enjoyed the overall experience -- wouldn't have missed it for the world -- and am definitely hanging out for the next one.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Pilgrimage to Brighton

Having spent most of my childhood and formative years in Brighton, Melbourne - Australia, it seemed fitting I should visit its namesake in England. I had heard and read much of Brighton. It's where Lydia Bennett elopes from in Pride and Prejudice, and the Royal Pavilion is referred to many times in Georgette Heyer's regency romances. And of course there are the famous Brighton Pier and pebbled beaches. Visiting Brighton was therefore high on my priority list, and we went there from Portsmouth last week (before the snow arrived).

Instead of staying in the heart of Brighton, we found a quaint 1930s inn (The White Horse hotel) in the nearby village of Rottingdean. By this time I felt as though I were living in one of Ms Heyer's or Austen's novels. The inn was perched on the edge of the sea, and featured a bar and restaurant below – perfect. Our rooms were modern and comfortable, I hasten to add, as the hotel is run by a group that specialises in old english inns. I rather think I could tour England staying in them.

On a beautiful sunny morning, we took the UnderCliff walk from Rottingdean into Brighton. This took us rambling below about a mile of white chalk cliffs, through the Brighton Marina, and into the town. Once there, we wandered through some of the streets and famous Lanes, and sauntered down through the penny arcades to the amusement park at the end of Brighton Pier.

Then we went to the Royal Pavilion, built as a pleasure palace by the Prince of Wales (later George IV) in the late 18th C. The Pavilion is almost indescribable. Its exterior is somewhat interesting, while on the inside its entertaining rooms are incredibly elaborate – they have to be seen to be believed. I am left with impressions of much gold, hundreds of Asian or Chinoise-style dragons, sumptuous fabrics . . . (Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photos.) The visit included an audio tour that provided all the history of the palace, which was sold by Queen Victoria to the people of Brighton in around 1845. As a royal residence, the Pavilion had a fairly short life, but it still oozes history and is quite stunning (in both senses of the word) to behold.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Travelwriting update

I have been travelling for over six weeks now, and have had some pleasing success on the fiction writing front. During the France and Spain segments of the trip, I managed to utilise just about every train or bus journey longer than a couple of hours to progress my novel rewrite. In the end, I managed to write several thousand words (which is rather more than I managed to write in the weeks/months leading up to going away). This happened to coincide with my writing group busily undertaking a WriMoFoFo (write more for four weeks), so I suppose you could say I took part in spirit.

I'm really happy with this outcome -- I hoped rather than expected to be able to write in such an environment, and although it required some discipline not to just sit back and read a book, it turned out to be relatively easy once the WIP was open in front of me. Everyone in my travel group became quite accustomed to seeing me with baby computer open on my lap, clacking away (or staring into space, thinking). Unfortunately, progress has been slower (or, more accurately, non-existent) since arriving in the UK, and I'm going to have to turn this around very soon!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Historical ships in Portsmouth

A visit to Portsmouth (to see the Victory and the Mary Rose) was high on my father's priority list, so off we went on a family road trip, accompanied by my sister, who flew over from Germany to visit the pudding club. By the time we left, it took us most of the day to get there from Evesham (given a leisurely lunch stop), so we found a dodgy hotel (family room in a pseudo Tudor hotel – what a laugh) and planned our visit to the Historical Dockyards for Sunday morning.

By chance, we timed our visit for the weekend featuring a 'Victorian Christmas festival', meaning the site was swarming with costumed characters from such tomes as Oliver Twist, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland etc, as well as many street performances, food stalls and a Christmas market. This was merely a bonus for us, for we had come to see the ships!

The Victory
The Victory was Nelson's ship at the battle of Trafalgar, and history oozed from her timbers. We wandered up and down through her multiple decks, which included three decks of guns/cannons, Nelson's quarters, those of many others in her crew, and the workrooms of various craftsmen aboard the ship (carpenters, medics, blacksmiths, cooks etc).

The Mary Rose was Henry VIII's flagship, commonly believed to be one of the first dedicated English warships, which sunk just off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545. She was excavated in the 1970s and raised in 1982. Thousands of amazing artefacts from her are on display in the Mary Rose museum. I was particularly impressed by the longbows, which were found packed tightly in a box, and are in near impeccable condition. The raised hull of the ship is currently unavailable for viewing, since it's in restoration and a new museum is under construction around it.


The Warrior (with mud for mudlarking)
 We also looked over the Warrior, one of the first English steam warships. It has four massive boilers and two funnels, two decks of guns/cannons, plus loads of other quarters as well. Oddly enough, it also has a full rigging for sails, although the interior seems to support steam propulsion methods more.

We spent half a day at the Historical Dockyards on a freezing cold Sunday, bracing ourself against the cold (and a little snow). Next stop was Brighton.. .

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Snow

Not sure whether it has made international news, but the UK is in the grip of most unseasonable weather! We are currently snowed in, more or less housebound (although the local high street is a 10 min walk away), and spending a lot of time gazing out the window to marvel at the snowscape of laden trees and half-buried cars.

It has been freakishly cold ever since we arrived in England a week or so ago, and we first woke to a blanket of snow in Evesham on Saturday. In Portsmouth on Sunday, we were most amused by a storm of fake snow at the 'Victorian Christmas Festival' at the Historical Dockyards . . . only to be thrilled by actual snow falling outside, as we watched from within a cosy cafe sipping hot chocolate.

Then we awoke on Tuesday to behold a snow-dusted pebble beach at Rottingdean, just outside Brighton, and our car was also covered by what we then considered to be a fair blanket of the white stuff. The day looked grey and the forecast predicted more snow, so we abandoned our plans to drive to Hastings for the morning, and instead made a beeline for our friends' house in Orpington, Greater London. It was only around 40 miles from Brighton so we thought we might make it for morning tea . . .

All went well until we exited the motorway for Orpington. With only about 3 miles to go, we slowed to a crawl, stuck in a bank of cars that edged forward at a rate slower than walking pace. Initially we founded the whole thing thrilling, enduring snow in the face to take photos. I had certainly never seen such massive, snow-flake-shaped snowflakes! They were perfect. But by the time it had taken 2 hours to arrive in the high street, where traffic was completely gridlocked owing to two stuck buses, the novelty had started to wear off and we all needed a bathroom.

We parked the car right there in the high street (putting a pound into the pay and display machine, although it my view this was unnecessary), and dashed across the road to McD's, where there were not only toilets but free WiFi. We googled the address of our destination, established it was only a 10 min walk, then arrived on foot on the doorstep of our rather surprised hosts, who had by this time concluded we were probably doomed to spend the night in the car somewhere in the middle of the motorway. (I should say at this point that persons nameless had not remembered to bring either phone number or map of said hosts' residence. . .)

By this time it was after 1pm, so we ate lunch before attempting to retrieve the car (and our luggage). Lucky for me, this task fell to others, who set about planning the route with the lowest gradient – by this time many of the roads were impassable, particularly those with significant slopes. The car did not arrive for another 3 hours. It is now parked in a bay at the bottom of the hill, gradually becoming buried by the snow. We had to carry our backpacks up the hill to the house, and were immensely thankful we weren't reliant on wheelie cases.

After snowing all day yesterday, it has continued to snow overnight and all day today. I confess that now I am snug and happy inside, it's all rather exciting again. We donned our gear and trekked down to the high street this morning to get some bits and pieces, and I loved stomping through more than a foot of fresh powder. So light and soft! Like spun sugar.

Tomorrow the forecast is for more of the same. Everywhere around London the traffic is chaos, and the public transport system is in a shambles. Many of the trains are not running. Not sure about buses. Our next challenge is to return the hire car, which was actually due today, and then get back here somehow . . .

For the short term I don't mind being housebound, because after nearly 6 weeks travelling I'm due for some relaxation time. I'm quite happy for now to read and write and watch DVDs (although I'm hoping my hosts' internet connection will be up again soon – I'm writing this offline). Eventually the snow will disappear, or at least stop falling, and I will resume my explorations.